The morning I read about Shirley Temple Black’s death, I called my 79-year-old mother to offer condolences.
“Of course, I thought of you first,” I said.
“I knew you would.”
Shirley Temple was the patron saint of every girl in America who took tap dancing lessons during the half-century that stretched from the Great Depression until the resignation of Richard Nixon. The cherubic tot, who became a dancing and singing sensation in films for Twentieth Century Fox at age six, was America’s sweetheart during the black days of the 1930s, imploring those who were economically hard hit to “Be Optimistic” and “Look On the Sunny Side” in a series of cinematic confections. She received more fan mail than adult stars of her era and topped Hollywood box office sales lists for four consecutive years. But to me, though I never met her, she would always be like a sister — a sister who was better than me in every way.
That’s because my mother was obsessed with Temple. The diminutive star’s fame was so vast that even my mother, a child born in Hamburg, Germany in 1935 — who spent her earliest years hiding in World War II bomb shelters — could hum the melody to “On The Good Ship Lollypop.” Temple, in all her precocious, curly-haired glory came to represent everything wonderful and unavailable during Mom’s war-torn childhood. And for most of the rest of her life, happiness remained bound to two things: tap dancing and one day making it to the charmed world represented by Hollywood, California.
I won’t belabor the idea that parents give their children the things they always wanted and never got — whether or not those things interest their kids. Let me just say that, such was the power of my mother’s dreams that I ended up artlessly stumbling through many years of unwanted tap lessons during my childhood in 1960s Hollywood — a childhood in which Shirley Temple was omnipresent.
She smiled at me from tables and shelves in the form of antique dolls and autographed photos and record albums my mother dug up in junk stores. She sang to me about “animal crackers in my soup.” And she lorded over every Sunday afternoon when Mom and I — along with my actual sister — watched her old black and white movies on the family television set.
“Hurry.” Mom would call out to us from the couch where she was already ensconced with a TV dinner in her lap, “Heidi’s about to start.”
We’d scramble to join her, even though we’d already seen the movie so often we could recite its dialogue.
“Grandfather, grandfather!” we’d call to each other, mocking the implausible montage from the film in which the tot searched for her amnesia-addled caretaker who always seemed to be in the next room or just around the corner and unable to hear her cries. We found it hilarious.
Later, during my adolescence, Mom collected Shirley Temple figurines and “limited edition” plates sold by the Franklin Mint, depicting scenes from Heidi, Captain January and Curly Top. They hung on the walls with my Dad’s nautical artifacts — like a sort of off-kilter display from the HMS Lollypop.
By then the torture of my enforced dance lessons had ended. Mom had conceded to my innate clumsiness and concentrated her energy on rolling my sister’s hair into blond ringlets.
“Hold still, I need to get this right,” she’d say to my sister through a mouthful of hairpins while I curled up in a corner to lose myself in a book.
The thing is, I’m pretty sure we were not the only members of this cult. Celebrities as diverse as Barbra Streisand and Whoopi Goldberg have claimed in interviews that their mothers put their hair in ringlets, too. My years in moldering dance studios also provided me with substantive anecdotal evidence that the Temple-worship lasted for decades and affected the lives of thousands (maybe millions) of girls.
I could have resented Temple, the perfect child who continued to hold my mother’s attention and embodied her fantasies in a way that I never would. And I wanted to. But who could hate that dimpled moppet? It would be like the moon being jealous of the sun.
When I was in my twenties, I noticed that my mother had begun splitting her affections among other child performers. Mostly, she fixated on young figure skaters. Our phone calls would often be dominated by animated conversation regarding one or another former gold medalist’s post-Olympic troubles.
“I don’t know what Oxana is thinking when she drives around drunk. After all she had,” Mom would say disapprovingly. “Throwing it away like that. I wish I’d had half her success.”
I disliked that she spoke about these Oxanas, Taras and Katerinas with the same fervor she had once reserved solely for her Shirley. After all, what were these girls after their time in the ring? Drunks? Ice Capades performers? After Temple’s child stardom she had become an international diplomat. There was really no comparison and I didn’t approve of the disloyalty.
On a visit a few years ago, Mom led me into her bedroom to reveal a stack of boxes neatly stacked in the corner of the closet.
Gesturing toward the pile, she said, “Those are all my Shirley Temple things. I want you to have them.”
This was stunning news and it scared me. I worried that giving away the things she had cherished for a lifetime was tied up with a sense of her own mortality. What would she do next, I wondered; give away the clay handprint I’d made when I was five?
“You should sell them,” she continued. “They must be worth a lot by now.
“You really want me to take everything?”
“Not the dolls,” she smiled. “I’m keeping the dolls.”
“Are you sad?” I asked her, the day Temple died.
Mom was surprisingly unemotional. I could hear the unmistakable sound of the television tuned to the Winter Olympics in the background.
“She was 85. She had a good life. Maybe I would have been sad 20 years ago. But I don’t have that passion anymore.” Then added wistfully, “The passion I had since I was a child.”
The funny thing is, I was sad. I’ve experienced a similar amorphous sense of loss when other celebrities of my childhood have died, leaving me feeling older and slightly unsure of my place in the scheme of things. But Shirley Temple was more than a celebrity to me. She was like a sister who could always best me with a shuffle-ball-change and a smile, and, more importantly, she was the patron saint of my childhood. I may dislike figure skaters, but I could never hate little Shirley.
However, I’d be happy to sell those worthless plates.